Civil War

Elmira Barracks No. 3 May 10, 1861

They gave us bad hash the other night, it tasted just like kerosene oil and smelt oily. They fed 1025 of us at one meal in one room—an unfinished machine shop…that night when I called the roll…a succession of sleepy cries of “speech from the orderly” arose, whereupon I began to hold forth in the dark on the slavery question and had gone on flowingly for some time when feeling rather bubbly, I exclaimed, “What killed the republics of Greece and Rome, and what is sapping and undermining the foundation of our glorious Union?” “Bad hash! Bad hash!” was answered by every one of the 80 men in the barracks. The cry was taken up by the whole of the regiment. Bad hash! Bad hash! Until Charles Edward Mac Canty, our drummer, sat up in his bunk and roared out in stentorian tones “Shut up you damn fools. You’ll get enough of it for breakfast.”

The next day at dinner the beef stunk a little. The window into the cook room was open and the chief cook was standing there in all his glory. One of my men grabbed up a plate and threw it beef, plate and all at his portly person exclaiming “You God damned black hearted white livered son of a bitch, don’t you ever set such stuff as that before me again.”

The same day the Utica company threw their pails of soup on the table, in short we had all we could do to prevent a mutiny.

-- Samuel Selden Partridge, 13th NY Regt.

June 14, 1861

I think we do have fine times. Not fine times when compared with the pleasant hours spent at home with our loved ones but fine times when compared with what might be. Life is just as we make it. We can be happy almost anywhere if we only think how much worse off we might be. This is the true secret of happiness.
(when challenged by another writer to explain how he could have “the conscience to say that we are having fine times)

May 29, 1861

As I sit here, while twilight is stealing in upon me, I can but think of home, and of all the dear friends left behind. The happy hours of the past are lived over again. Again I see the kind faces, again I hear the tones that are so sweet to me. As I sit here alone thus musing the strains of “Annie Laurie” steal in upon my ear. The men, too, are thinking of absent and loved ones. The roughest soldier among us has a quiet corner of his heart that he keeps hidden from his comrades’ eyes. There he keeps green the memory of those who are all and all to him. Occasionally a tear starts into his eye but is hastily wiped away. Were it not for this feeling in the heart the men would be a great deal worse than they are.

-- Edwin Gilbert 13th NY (as his regiment leaves Elmira recruit depot, on the feelings of men going off to war for the first time)

Diary from October 24, 1863

If only the folks at home could see how a soldier makes himself comfortable. I myself went a mile to obtain a fence rail for a bed. Two of these are laid so that the sharp edge is inside. The thick part is outside so that kind of a tray or trough is formed. This is the bed; then my tent is stretched over it; that is the house. Others just lie down on the wet ground.
I myself am frying a little piece of meat held on a pointed stick over the fire. It is half burned and half raw but that does not matter; a cup of strong coffee causes it to slide down. Then I lay myself down on the fence rail bed where I look at the starry sky and fall asleep.

-- August Seiser, 140th NY

General McClellan’s Head Quarters, Friday October 3, 1862

Cousin Augusta

You ask me if I will not be glad when the last battle is fought. So far as my country is concerned I, of course, must wish for peace and will be glad when the war is ended but if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life. Now do not misunderstand me. I speak only of my own interests and desires perfectly regardless of the world besides but as I said before, when I think of the pain and misery produced to individuals as well as the miserable sorrow caused throughout the land I cannot but earnestly hope for peace, and at an early date.

-- George Armstrong Custer, writing to his cousin Augusta Frary of Geneseo

3rd New York Artillery
Tuesday August 25th, 1863
Newburn, North Carolina

Dear Brother Isaac,

As I have long been thinking of writing you a letter I thought I would occupy a few moments this afternoon as it is a rainy day and I have nothing else to do. There is no special news of importance at present, all is quiet here, the weather has been very warm here for about six weeks and it is yet. It is very unhealthy here at present, about one third of our company is on the sick list. Our camp is on a little knoll, completely surrounded with a swamp which makes it very sickly, mostly fevers and chill. As for myself, I am feeling quite well at present but rather weak. I have been sharing my part with the rest in fevers and chills but the worst of my sickness was the Asiatic cholera. I was not expected to live hardly from one hour to another by the doc and others who saw me. My limbs were cold, my pulse had stopped and they said I was black as a boot but I did not realize my danger and I was taken on the first day of July. I went to the hospital and staid (sic) until the 14th. When I returned to my quarters I cannot begin to describe to you my suffering until the disease was checked but the good Lord lay beneath me his almighty arm and raised me to my usual strength again. I saw three die while I was at the hospital, died with fevers. It was a solemn sight.

Isaac, what do you think of the present prospect of the war closing within six months longer? I think the prospects are favorable. I think that most of the fighting is done unless there should be foreign intervention but I have no fears of that.

Wednesday August 26th

All is quiet here this morning. We had a very fine rain last night and cooled the air off finely. I am feeling first rate this morning. Hope you are all feeling the same. The report has just come into camp that Charleston is taken by our forces and that the stars and stripes are now waving over the city but how true the report is I cannot say. Hope its true. It begins to seem as though the war is about in its last stages. It seems to be generally thought that the war cannot last but a little longer and for my part I don’t care how quick it is closed off for I feel in a hurry to get out of this awful unhealthy climate and I am getting very anxious to see my family and friends once more. I think if it is in my happy lot to see old York State again, I shall comfort myself to stay there. Isaac, I for sure you have got your mind made up to settle in old Cayuga if the war is settled satisfactory, haven't you? I think you could not do better. Cayuga is one of the most healthy and fertile counties in the state. I know you would like it. Please think of it and when you write, tell me what you think about matters and things in general. How is your crops this year? Good, I hope. What are Christopher’s folks doing this summer? How does Abram and Minerva get along? Oh how I should like to come to old Hoosick and make you all I visit and if I live to get out of the army I think I shall come. If nothing happens.

August 28th

Yesterday it was so cold we had to set up our stoves and build a fire to keep comfortable. Today is plenty warm without a fire but very little clothing so you see the weather is very changeable.

Thursday August 29th

A very rainy day. We’re all cooped up in our tents making ourselves as comfortable as we can. I wonder what you are doing today, spredding around I presume as usual. It is just one year ago today since I enlisted. How many have been slain during the year and I am still spared and hope it will be my happy lot to return home once more safe and sound. But time only can tell what is in the future.

August 30th

All is quiet here but we heard heavy cannonading all night. Thought it was in the direction of Wilmington. I received a letter last night from my family. All were in usual health. It was good news to me. William Gidney’s and ??? health were all better than they have been. Hope we may all live to meet again on Earth once more but if not it is my prayer that we may all meet in heaven and part no more. Give my love to all inquiring friends and accept the same. Write soon as you get this direct. Accept these lines from your true and affectionate brother Jack Coo(?)

-- from letter donated by Bruce Hall, 8517 rt. 90 King Ferry NY

After Bull Run

The bullets whistled around like hail and it is to me a perfect wonder that I did not get shot…to my astonishment, I was never cooler in my life nor felt less fear.

July 29, 1861

Our little regiment acted like old soldiers and acquitted themselves far beyond any expectation.

But it was a military blunder as I ever heard of. A boy would have or ought to have known better.

The mere loss of men is nothing compared to the demoralization caused by the retreat. O that retreat! I’ll never forget that night. It was worse than the battle. I cannot give you a picture of the scenes on that road, men overcome and lying down on the roadside, caring neither for death or liberty, wagons overturned, and the ever pressing throng of horsemen, footmen, baggage wagons, and ambulances. And weary mile after mile was passed till morning came.

I hope that whatever experience I may have as a soldier I will not have any more such as that night.

(Charles Curtis Brown rises to Lt. Col. Of 22nd NY Cavalry, was sent out to keep watch on army’s flank at battle of Wilderness, unit was stampeded by rebel artillery. Brown described the chaos when men and horses tried to scramble back through swamps)

May 7, 1864

Some horses went down completely and others tumbled over them. Every moment I expected to be engulfed in the mud, horses and humanity. I would tumble over some, others over me. All this time the shells were bursting over us adding horror to the affair.

October 15, 1864

I never enter battle without thinking too much of you and Katie. Too much for it distracts my thoughts from the work before me. It was not so before we were married, for though you were in my mind a good share of the time, still I did not feel as though you would be the chief sufferer by my death. Now I think all the time. Poor Sallie my darling wife, what will she do if I am killed, and it almost makes me shrink from incurring the danger. A loving husband must be a hero indeed who makes a good soldier.

-- Charles Curtis Brown between serving with the 13th NY and the 22nd Cav., Brown married, later had a daughter, Katie. He wrote to his wife on how that had changed his outlook as a soldier, 1861-65, originals at U of R

September 21, 1862

…the horrors of the battlefield. On my way from Greencastle to Williamsport, I passed over the field where they fought the day before. There were men with one leg, one arm, bodies without heads or with only part of a head. I saw one man who was hit with a piece of shell with the back part of his head cut entirely off, he was still alive. At one of the hospitals, I saw a stack of arms and legs 4 feet high.

December 1862, Frederick City

We have been doing picket duty for the past 2 weeks. The first time I went on my post the rebels were on the other side of the river and one of them threw down his arms and I did mine and we mounted our horses and each rode to the middle of the river and there we had a little chat and finally I treated him with some coffee for a plug of tobacco and we parted. He was a young man about my age belonging to the 3rd Virginia Cavalry. I have met and talked with them two or three times since. There has been a great battle here and the rebels were too many for us. They killed a great many of our men.

Catlett’s Station June 15, 1863

When the rebbs charged on us, one of them came up to Sergeant Borows and said “surrender you yanky son of a bitch” and another shot his horse from under him. Then Borows shot him and brought him to the ground and a spring brought him by his side where he bead his brains out with the but of his pistol. One of Major Pope’s orderlies was attacked by 3. The first he shot dead, the second he thrust through with his saber. The third shot him through the head and his battles were ore.

(July 6, 1863 good long letter after Gettysburg, was wounded)

August 18, 1863

You don’t know what real fun is till you get in a fight where the waseps (bullets) whiz, w-h-I-z—and the bomb shells go boo—woo—oo—oo bang w-h-I-z all around your head like rain and drop like corn among the chickens and you call feel the wind in your face as they pass. Then you can see the fun. I used to be a little skittish when I commenced but I have got over that now. All I think about now when I get in a fight is where is the nearest rebb and the next thing you hear from me is the crack of my gun and perhaps a yell if I can see any effect from the shot.

-- Daniel Pulis 8th NY Cavalry

July 24, 1861 (following 1st Battle of Bull Run/Manassas)

When a bullet goes into a man’s head it makes a crash among the bones that can be heard distinctly for some feet. It is horrible to be cautioning a man beside you to sight well before he fires and while he is following your advice to have a bullet pass clear through his head—and a torrent of blood from his mouth gush all over your face. I cant relate all of this kind that I went through—it sickens me.

July 20, 1863 (describing the scene on July 6th as he walked along Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. He was stunned by the devastation and walked among a multitude of wounded Confederates)

One poor fellow was in a delirium and crying for his mother. Another was begging for mercy and deliverance from on high. And again there was a wounded sergeant who did not seem to mind his wounds, but was laughing and talking with our own soldiers.
However bad the rebel cause may be and however just the war is as waged against it, the soldiers engaged in it have won the respect and admiration of their adversaries, the Federal troops, for their undaunted bravery and fortitude. They are not a whit inferior in valor and soldier-like qualities to our own troops. Both sides are equally matched in that respect.

-- Samuel Selden Partridge

Grape, cannister, shells and minnies were poured into us from the front and from the right shells were thrown into us, raking us and exploding in our ranks fearfully. We had 3 board fences to go over and through and no cover. How any man went up and back again alive is more than I can imagine.

Without straightening up I just raised my head a little to find a good place to get over and through when a ball took me in the top of the cap clear back and scratched my head down the back side passing through my cap again near the bottom of the back of it. It tumbled me of course but in about 3 minutes I was up again.

-- Edward Pierce 108th NY December, 1862 (describing charging the stone wall at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg)

The earth is shaking. The sun looks bloody red: it is terribly, horribly beautiful; all kinds of bullets rain in every direction.
We lie like pigs in dirt, the whole night in a heavy rain, getting such sleep as we can.
Here it is again: throwing up trenches under a hail of shells from the rebels. Here and there one falls down, axe or spade in hand, hit by a bullet: yet that is nothing new.

How is it possible to endure such strain and how long will it still last in this way?

-- August Seiser 140th NY Diary from May 8-15, 1864

Camp, 11th US Infantry
City Point, Va.
March 11, 1865

My dear Cousin Hannah,

I believe I owe you a letter, having received one from you the day after writing me one which you will have received ere this.
The weather here still continues very changeable and I may say without exaggeration that it rains four days out of seven. The roads are in an awful state, rendering them more like creeks of liquid mud than paths.

I do not think of anything to interest you unless it is an execution of a deserter that we attended yesterday:
--- The battalion formed yesterday morning at 10 a.m. proceeded about two miles through the mud and ruin to the appointed place, where the execution take place. Here we of the troops composing “Patrick’s Provost Guard” formed three sides of a large square, at the other side which was the grave near to the gallows where we hang spies. We (?) opened ranks and the front rank faced about; then the provosts enter at the right of the line and proceed between the ranks to the other end. First came the Band of the “Coll’s Zouves” playing a funeral dirge, then the Provost Marshall, next a squad of men with arms (raised?), followed by the coffin borne by four men, then came the prisoner attended by a chaplain and followed by a guard of men with fixed bayonets. After passing through the ranks and arriving at the grave, the coffin was placed at the edge and the prisoner was placed at the edge of the coffin, the firing party forming 12 paces from him. The Provost Marshal then steps to the front and reads the sentence convicting Private William Remson alias George Colger Co. B 8th Delaware Volunteers of Desertion and sentencing him to be shot to death by musketry at 12 p.m. the 10th day of March, 1865. The prisoner then addressed the troops giving us a brief account of his military career but as the square was pretty large I did not catch all his words—all I understood was that he entered the service as a Lieutenant in a New York Battery. Twelve oclock (sic) having arrived the firing party came to attention. The command of “Fire” was given, he did not flinch an inch, fell over into his coffin and died like a man. The band then took position in the center of the square playing (??) as troops moved by the flank past the -----and body of the -----and then home to their quarters. Such is a military execution, imposing to a stranger but to a soldier who is accustomed to death in all shapes, rather a bore, especially when he is dragged through the mud and rain for two miles to witness it and I am sorry to say I heard men yesterday cursing the poor fellow for being shot and taking them out in the rain. Well to be sure it was no enviable job to polish one’s shoes and get the mud off your clothes for evening parade.

While on furlough I had some photographs taken. When I receive them I will send you one and you can tear that one I sent from Alexandria up. It is such a mean one that I am sorry I ever sent it to you.

Give my love to Uncle, Aunt and Cousins,

Believe me
Your affect. Cousin

-- George Merryweather, 1st Sgt Co. E 1st Batt., 11th US Infantry

Camp of the U.S. May 20, 1864

Dear father and mother

Today I sit to write you a few lines hoping they may find you well. I will give you a description of where we are and how we are situated. We are on the Appomatox. This is a small river running into the James above City Point. This is the left of our line. It runs from here to the James. We have throwed (sic) up a line of brush work the whole length. We expect they will try to drive us out of here---there is heavy firing on our right. It commenced this morning at daybreak. We are where we have got to fight pretty near all the time. We have been here two weeks and fought six days and fought four days and nights without ceasing. The boys from Newberuine (sic) have been very lucky--so far, not one of them hurt. It is not likely that the captain will ever be with us again. He will be a cripple for life.

The boys are well. I am well. I send you a piece of wire that I took off the telegraph that runs from Richmond to Petersburg. Tell mom that I want to see her.

I will close by saying goodbye to you all for the present. Write soon.

H.H. Chamberlin

-- Hortentius Chamberlin to his parents shortly before his death

December 19, 1862 (after Fredericksburg)

Dear Cousin Libby,

It is awful to think of the thousands who were killed and wounded for nothing at all. We (our army) occupy the same ground as before the battle, no more. When are we going to accomplish anything? Now more than ever before, I feel discouraged.

February 17, 1863 Camp above Falmouth, Virginia

The soldiers as a general thing are very much discouraged about ending the war. Lots of them are deserting every day and a good share of those left, though I think they enlisted from patriotic motives, remain only from principle.

-- Augustus F. Hall, 50th NY Engineers

March 31, 1863

Indeed, a few such delicacies from home seem to throw a peculiar charm over the soldiers. It is impossible to understand the power of this spell until you have witnessed the reception of such things by some poor, emaciated fellow whose life seems almost to depend upon something nutritious and palatable—until you have said to such a one, “Here, my good fellow, take this: It is something from home;” then see him stare at you, then at the plate, see the strained cords stand out on his wasted neck, his eyes fill with tears, his chin tremble, and he draws his rough blanket up to hide his face for a moment before he thinks of eating that sacred food. God alone can fathom the depth of that man’s gratitude or estimate the fervor of his whispered prayer.

-- Mashies L. Lord, assistant surgeon 140th NY (describes the regimental hospital when he distributed food and other delicacies sent “From the Ladies of Scottsville)

August 19, 1862

Culpeper, for the past two or three days, has been one vast hospital. A large wooden building near the depot has been employed for the wounded. I visited it yesterday while in search of the Medical Director—and such a spectacle! Oh, it was awful—heart rending! It was filled with wounded soldiers, lying on the floor, many of whom had just had an arm or a leg amputated and all were suffering the effects of some terrible wound. The sight reminded me of a slaughter-house, for the floor was covered with blood, and human beings were being cut and sawed and subjected to the weapons of the surgeon, perhaps to die almost immediately afterwards. And all this for what? For the salvation of our country. The cause justifies the cost. May God prosper the cause and crown it with speedy success.

-- George Breck, Battery L, 1st NY Light Artillery

January 26, 1863 (opposed Emancipation Proclamation)

I will not jeopardize my life or become an invalid for life from exposure and fatigue, hunger and cold, simply to restore 3,000,000 brutes to freedom. Before the first of January I could meet a rebel and face him. Now, I can’t. Formerly when a reb on picket or any other place asked me, “What are you fighting for?” I could answer, proudly too, for the restoration of the Union—now when one asks me I have to hang my head or else answer , for the (negros.)

-- Edward Pierce 108th NY

June 1st 1863

Absent but remembered friend,

You will think that I have entirely forgotten you but it is not so. Far from it. If I had written to you every time that I thought about it, it would have been many times. But I must tell you the reason for this long delay. When I received your kind letter I was to Mr. Benjamins but was sick, so that I could not get up but for a few moments at a time.

I have followed your regiment in the papers as far as possible. I have looked over the names of the list but have been happy to find none of our boys in them. That you all may keep in good health and return to your home is the prayer of many hearts.

It has been quite healthy here this Spring but you know death loves a shining mark and he took Wats Davis boy away. He was buried last Sunday. He was a pretty boy of six years old. Their girl is very sick. The disease is diphtheria. I am afraid it will go through this place as it has others. I must close for tonight.

I remain your friend,

-- Mary Hatch to Justus Matteson